The novel architecture of Georges Perec
An evocative sub-category within late twentieth-century fiction privileges domestic architecture as an organizing principle for narrative construction.1 The ‘architectural novel’, which emerges with the reorganization of space and its impact on everyday life, takes for granted that the house is an extension of society and public events inextricable from the private realm. The most exemplary versions of the architectural novel enact socio-political transitions through the architecture both in and of the novel, exploring the political implications behind the arrangements of inhabited space. This essay examines one such novel, Georges Perec’s seminal La Vie mode d’emploi (1978; Life A User’s Manual, 1987), a complex and mammoth work that constitutes a web of interwoven stories tracing the past and present lives of the inhabitants of a fictional Parisian apartment house at 11 rue SimonCrubellier. Perec exploits the tension between the rigid structure of a building and the imaginative processes that take place within it and engages with the possibilities offered by imaginative depths not available in the two dimensions of the page. This particular architectural novel functions as a national allegory of France in the second half of the twentieth century. Perec’s allegory responds specifically to the transformation of French national identity and social relations in the aftermath of 1968, particularly as it presents the problem of finding one’s place in history. With Life, written between 1969 and 1978, Perec turns to domestic space in response to the ‘Unitary Urbanism’ of the
late 1950s (and its subsequent impact on May ’68), the Situationists’ reaction against a perceived stagnation of everyday life. Unitary Urbanism advocated the ‘dérive’ (an aimless wandering) and ‘psychogeography’ (the effect of an environment on a subject’s behaviour and psychology). Perec explores ever-shifting social relations within the confined space of a single building. This building, a nineteenth-century structure, no longer displays the class relations it was once designed to shelter, and as such questionably accommodates postmodern dwelling. In his short essay ‘The Apartment Building’, Perec plainly describes his plans for Life A User’s Manual:
I imagine a Parisian apartment building whose façade has been removed … so that all the rooms in the front, from the ground floor up to the attics, are instantly and simultaneously visible. The novel – whose title is Life A User’s Manual – restricts itself … to describing the rooms thus unveiled and the activities unfolding in them, the whole in accordance with formal procedures … try to imagine on what a collective existence might be based, within the confines of this same [the reader’s] building.